Symbology of numbers

Butterflies in the genus Diaethria all appear to have a number tattooed on their wings – photo by E. Jurus, all rights reserved

Today I was moving the little magnet on my decorative Halloween wall calendar, and noticed that it’s now only 40 days until Oct 31, aka Halloween — woohoo! (Hopefully that’s not too triggering for you, like the people who want to drive you crazy by counting down the number of shopping days left until Christmas.)

We have many methods of marking the passage of time, and certain dates hold special significance. Some dates float, as in Thanksgiving ; others are fixed, whether as a birthdate, a chosen commemorative day, or a date that may live on in notoriety. On September 10, 2002, who would have ever thought that the very next day would become infamous from then on? (Other than the perpetrators of the attacks.)

Throughout history, certain numbers have taken on more mystical qualities.

The number 13 has become so associated with bad luck that hotels won’t even list a 13th floor, and hostesses have refused to have thirteen people at a dinner party. Fear of the number even has a name: triskaidekaphobia.

Theories abound as to why people link 13 to bad things – in Norse mythology, Loki the trickster god showed up uninvited to a banquet as the 13th guest and tricked a blind god into shooting an arrow at another god, killing him; Judas, the disciple who betrayed Jesus to the Romans, was supposedly the 13th man to sit at the Last Supper; King Philip IV of France ordered the arrest (and killing) of all the Knights Templar on Friday 13, 1307; and so on. In some minds, the superstition was probably reinforced in mid-20th century America by the nearly-disastrous Apollo 13 moon mission.

But there are cultures who believe that 13 is a lucky number, and in Asia, a different number is considered extremely bad: 4. It’s a homonym for the word ‘death’ in some Asian languages. According to an article in the Harvard Business Review, Bad-Luck Numbers that Scare Off Customers, most companies in that part of the world avoid using the number entirely (such as in a company phone number), and potential business partners would be wise to do the same.

The number 40, which gave me the idea for this post, was used over and over again in the Bible. The rain of the Great Flood fell for that many days and nights, Noah waited for 40 days after the rains stopped to send a bird out to look for land, Moses stayed on Mount Sinai for that length of time, the wandering Hebrews took 40 years to reach the Promised Land, the season of Lent lasts for 40 days.

Even today, 40 can be found throughout many cultures. The practice of isolation to prevent the spread of disease has traditionally been 40 days, and in fact that’s where the name ‘quarantine’ comes from. Maybe we need a special word for the 10 days of isolation following a Covid diagnosis 😉. A full week of work in North America is traditionally 40 hours, and 40 ounces is a standard size of bottle for liquors. And who decided that the term ‘catching forty winks’ represents having a short sleep?

Of course, once our brains decide that a certain number must have significance, we tend to see it everywhere.

The number 23 has attracted a dedicated following. There’s a Facebook group of people who believe that 23 follows them through life, called the 23rdians, as well as a group on Twitter. While that number, like all numbers, has mathematical properties, people looking for what’s been called the 23 Enigma will recite ‘statistics’ such as adding up the four digits of the year performer Kurt Cobain was born, and was died (1967, and 1994), which with each year comes out to 23, and the fact that criminals Bonnie and Clyde died on May 23, 1934 (I’d have been more impressed if they’d died in 1923). I’m sure that if you could widely research birth and death records, you’d find a lot of people who entered or left the world on that date, just as you’d find plenty on the 24th of the month, or the 4th, or the 31st.

What is one to make of animals that appear to have numbers printed on them? Does it mean something? Hubby and I spotted one ourselves, a Diaethria butterfly, in the Amazon jungle. It’s a pretty white butterfly with a splash of red on the wings, and what looks like the number 88, 89, or 98 outlined in black. It’s even called the ‘89’98 butterfly’. If I were a superstitious sort, I’d probably think it was a lucky sighting, since in Chinese culture the number 88 is considered a symbol of good fortune. But enough things went wrong after that trip that I’d have to say it didn’t bring us any luck.

Humans have a built-in predilection to look for patterns — Survival 101. Patterns are one of the ways we learn, either to repeat actions that are beneficial, or avoid those that aren’t (although for some reason it took me over 40 years – there’s that number again – to learn to stop sticking my head in a hot oven as soon as I opened the door to check a roast or a cake). Patterns are legitimate, but sometimes people let pattern-spotting get out of hand, and will begin finding coincidences that validate their pet theory. That’s how conspiracy theories get started.

For writers, pattern-spotting and superstition are rich mines for motivating their characters, or even entire civilizations. Entire movie franchises have been built around it.

Tomorrow will mark 40 days to the start of this year’s annual National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). What that means for you, if you’ve always wanted to write a novel, is that you have essentially the length of the Biblical Flood to build your ark.

A couple of years ago, the NaNoWriMo organization surveyed winners as to what contributed to their success, and one common theme was advance preparation. You could start with not much of an idea and just dip your toes in the water, but I don’t think you’ll find the experience very satisfying.

If you’re serious about starting a novel this year, get your ducks in a row: basic plot outline, a good sense of your protagonist, her/his/their goal, obstacles to achieving that goal, where and when the story will take place. And my suggestion: where the story will start, and where it will end (then you just need to fill in the steps to take your protagonist from beginning to finale). You won’t need to finish your novel by November 30th, but if you reach the 50,000 word goal, you’ll be well on your way.

To help you, NaNoWriMo is offering a five-week course, NaNo Prep 101. It’s self-paced, so you can work on the contents whenever you’re able. From their website, this is the course outline:

  1. Develop a Story Idea (September 19-25)
  2. Create Complex Characters (September 26-October 2)
  3. Construct a Detailed Plot or Outline (October 3-9)
  4. Build a Strong World (October 10-16)
  5. Organize Your Life for Writing! (October 17-23)
  6. Find and Manage Your Time (October 24-30)

Each week’s module includes numerous resources as well. You can find all the details and start the course here.

I’ve had so many people, when they find out I’ve written a novel (and am working on books 2 & 3 in the series), tell me that they’ve always dreamed of doing the same. If you have the same dream, this could be your year!

Book 2 is finished!

Entrance to the Currents sound-and-light show, Niagara Parks Power Station. Photo by E. Jurus

I typed “The End” after fifty-five chapters and about 192,000 words of the second book in my ‘Chaos Roads’ trilogy. The future is clouded for my heroine and all the people in her life, like the fog screen at the Niagara Parks Power Station in Niagara Falls, Ontario, that precedes their Currents sound-and-light show (which my hubby and I enjoyed a few days ago).

What a journey this second novel has been! The protagonist barely survived the events of the first book, and has to deal with the profound changes in her life as a result, heading towards an inevitable transformation she’s not sure she wants.

The first completed draft is four chapters longer than Book 1, which surprised me, but the story must be told in the way that it wants to unfold. I don’t have complete control over it — let’s just say that it developed a few twists and turns I didn’t see coming. That’s a large part of the fun of writing for me, that I get to look forward to the adventure as much as my readers do.

All thoroughly backed up onto an external drive, Book 2 will now rest easy for a few weeks, simmering like a stew, while I complete the final edit of Book 1 and get it ready for publication. The official title will be “Through the Monster-glass”; I’ll post a preview and other information as I get it finalized.

I belong to an business-women’s entrepreneurial group, and at this month’s meeting we were all asked to share what we love the most about our chosen vocation. My answer was both easy and complex:

  • I love the process of writing, of capturing a scene in words that will make it come alive for my readers
  • I love the surprises along the way, as I’ve already mentioned
  • I love making my brain work: doing the plotting, the research, the wordsmithing
  • The sense of accomplishment is profound, to do something you’ve dreamt your whole life of doing. Even if it doesn’t sell (but of course I hope it does, and my beta readers all loved it), I’ve still achieved something remarkable.
  • I love that my journey is inspiring others to follow their dream

It took a great leap of faith on my part to embark on this journey. Throughout high school I received great marks on my creative writing, but there’s still a huge divide between those short stories and putting an entire book together. I wanted to write something that would live on in my readers’ imaginations long after they finish the final chapters, and I had no idea if I could actually do that.

You start off with the rudiments of an idea, and maybe the main plot points, but there’s still an awful lot that has to come out of your head after that. My genre, fantasy/sci-fi, typically runs between 100,000 to 150,000 words, maybe longer, which is frighteningly intimidating. My second blog post on this site, “Do you have a book inside you?“, shares more details of how I got started. Finishing the first book a year ago at the end of July was one of the shining milestones of my life.

Book 2 has highs, lows, profound questions, and lots of action. The third book will challenge my heroine in ways she never expected, answer many questions and open up many more. I hope it will be a thrilling, satisfying wrap-up of the amazing journey she’s been on — but that’s to be determined when I start writing it during the 2022 session of National Novel Writing Month this November. I look forward to taking all the notes on my very-detailed, multi-page spreadsheet and transforming them into the final part of the story, and I know I’ll be sad when I type the third and final “The End” next summer.

In the meantime, there’s the final, extra-scrutinizing edit of Book 1 to finish, then formatting it for publishing, working out a cover design, uploading it to Kindle, and holding the Launch Party (all details to follow on this site, and the Facebook page I’ll be creating). Lots to do, and a busy few months ahead.

You can find me on the NaNoWriMo site as AdvGal. If you sign up for the event, look me up — I’d be delighted to keep in touch and provide encouragement!

More writer info – children’s books, reality TV show

The start of the storybook trail on Foley Mountain, Ontario — in 2020 it featured The Gruffalo

This week’s post features two pieces of news I wanted to share with you.

  1. The Reedsy site has posted a comprehensive guide to publishing children’s books. This genre has never been in my wheelhouse, but if you have a wonderful concept for such a book you’ll want to check out all the information in the article, How to Publish a Children’s Book: A Guide for First-Time Authors. In a great illustration of synchronicity, or amazing coincidence (plotting note for you), the article begins by referencing Julia Donaldson, the author of the book featured in the photo for this post, which I took two years ago while on a pandemic vacation within the bounds of my own province.
  2. If you have a book idea inside you and would love the challenge of writing it in front of a huge television audience, this challenge might be for you! A new reality TV show specifically for writers is being put together; it’s called America’s Next Great Author, and the producers are taking casting calls right now. The show has several producers, including The Book Doctors, Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry, who run an annual Pitchapalooza for writers who’ve created a book through National Novel Writing Month. Though not for the faint-hearted (like all reality shows), this could be right up your alley: tryouts in several U.S. cities where you’ll get one minute to pitch your book idea to a publishing panel; then “Six charismatic finalists from vastly different places and backgrounds enter the Writer’s Retreat together for a month of live-wire challenges and spectacular storytelling.” The finalists will have to begin their book ‘from scratch’ and complete it in 30 days. Whether you want to submit your name for the casting calls, or just follow information on the show as it develops, this is where you’ll find out more 🙂 Good luck!